Grandiose hopes down the drain

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2005, 12:00am

The next time an Indian politician talks of turning Mumbai into the 'the next Shanghai', the laughter will carry across the Arabian Sea, as millions of residents collapse in mirth at an idea made ridiculous by the massive flooding caused by torrential rain last week.

Such grandiose hopes have been washed into the sea. 'Just forget it', said The Economic Times in a story headlined 'Megapolis hopes go down that clogged drain'. In another newspaper, columnist Vir Sanghvi fumed: 'Let's forget all this Singapore crap. Let's bury all this Shanghai hype. In neither of those cities would a downpour have led to so many deaths and so much suffering.'

Text messages reflect the sick joke that Mumbai residents feel has been played on them. 'The politicians forgot to tell us they meant Venice instead of Shanghai' is doing the rounds as people struggle to cope with a city that is still paralysed a week after the first massive downpour. Millions are still without water and power.

As the flood waters recede, a truth is trickling into the consciousness of the 12 million people who live in India's most dynamic city and commercial capital - that government after government has cheated them.

Despite paying taxes, the drains date back to the British Raj and corruption has permitted the rise of new buildings despite environmentalists saying that unplanned development would result in disasters of the kind seen last week.

But politicians make big money from giving contracts to builders to construct in areas officially known as 'no development zones'. Land in Mumbai is scarce and expensive. So apartment blocks and office complexes have risen on wetlands and mangrove swamps, leaving nowhere for flood waters to go.

The consequences of politicians' greed were felt by rich and poor last week as black water gushed into shacks and mansions alike. The highway from the city centre to the airport - the city's main artery - turned into a river. Cattle struggled to stay afloat. Cars were submerged. People waded in neck-high water. Animal carcasses and corpses drifted by gleaming steal-and-chrome office blocks.

One such block is the Bandra-Kurla complex, built in the late 1990s. Bittu Sehgal, one of the city's best-known environmentalists, warned municipal authorities, who had diverted a river to build the complex, that its plans did not give adequate drainage when the Mithi River, which borders the complex, floods in heavy rains.

Mr Sehgal was on the committee looking into the project but was dropped, along with another member with similar views.

'They fill these committees with yes men. People like me are put on as token environmentalists. When we protest, we are removed because too much money is at stake.'

A large mangrove patch between the river and the complex, which provided a natural flood barrier, was illegally reclaimed.

Mumbai has been suffering from a double disability. First, its infrastructure is crumbling under the weight of its population, 60 per cent of whom live in slums. The taxes that should have gone into better services have gone into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

'The last time any money was spent on the drains was 10 years ago and the population has increased by 2 million since then,' said former municipal commissioner S.S. Tinaikar.

Second, slums have been allowed in places where rainwater has nowhere to go. Builders have been allowed to build without regard for the congestion and chaos that result.

Residents have campaigned to save the city for years. In 2003, civic groups persuaded the government to ask consultants McKinsey to prepare a blueprint for transforming Mumbai. The document, 'Vision Mumbai', said the city could be world class by 2013 at a cost of 2,000 billion rupees ($359 billion). The report has languished in a government drawer.

Even when the government acts, its policies are half-baked. Most people agree that the vast shanty towns need to be bulldozed to let the city 'breathe' again. It is, after all, bursting at the seams.

But when Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh sent in the bulldozers in December to clean up the city and implement his promise to 'make Mumbai into Shanghai', he neglected to provide alternative accommodation.

'There were women shrieking in despair as their shacks were crushed, leaving no roof over their heads. It was heart-rending, they're so poor,' said social activist Rajshri Mataonde.

A public outcry stopped the cleanup campaign in its tracks.

With Mumbai under water, disillusionment has set in across the country. Indians are acutely aware that their infrastructure lags woefully behind China's. Indian visitors to Chinese cities are stunned at the contrast between the gleaming temples of modernity and their own shabby cities. Hope of closing that gap is fading.

Last week's human tragedy - with its countless examples of courage, generosity, fortitude and kindness - showed that the city needs political leadership and infrastructure that can equal the extraordinary spirit of its people.

Maybe the disaster will be the turning point. A group of Bollywood directors and actors are suing the administration, asking the courts why it should not be held accountable for the collapse of every service during the floods.

'We are punished if we don't do our duty of paying taxes. Why should the government not be punishable if it neglects its duty?' asked director Mahesh Bhatt.

The city's vital statistics

In Asia Fell from 26th place in 1996 to 33rd in 2000 in Asiaweek's top 40 Asian cities

In the world Ranks 124th of 130 cities in The Economist's hardship ratings

Population 14 million, and expected to increase by 2 million over this decade

Migration Attracts 100,000 people every year

Land An island of 437sq km with 14 million people, compared with Shanghai's 13 million in 4,500sq km

Growth Economic growth fell from 7 per cent between 1994 and 1998 to 2.4 per cent between 1998 and 2002


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Grandiose hopes down the drain

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